Sacred Tradition Is Purifying and Humbling

Sacred Tradition Is Purifying and Humbling

COMMENTARY: Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are the two major sources by which we receive God’s Revelation. By his words and deeds, God unveils himself to us.

A few years ago, when I was finishing my doctorate in moral theology at a pontifical university in Rome, a theologian read my research. After his review, he asked me, “I noticed you quoted Paul VI’s Populorum ProgressioDid you read the document?” I told him I had, and then he laughed and said, “Oh, you’re the one!”

Whenever I tell that story, priests and theologians laugh because it displays the purifying and humbling dimension of Sacred Tradition. 

Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are the two major sources by which we receive God’s Revelation. By his words and deeds, God unveils himself to us. He discloses his own knowledge of himself to us. 

In contemporary language, God shares himself with us. Through this self-revelatory knowledge, God invites each of us into a vital and personal relationship with him.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:

The apostles entrusted the ‘sacred deposit’ of the faith (the depositum fidei), contained in Sacred Scripture and Tradition, to the whole of the Church. ‘By adhering to [this heritage] the entire holy people, united to its pastors, remains always faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers’ (84).

In this way, the Catechism echoes the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on divine Revelation, Dei Verbumwhich explained Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture in the light of the commission to go and teach all nations:

But in order to keep the Gospel forever whole and alive within the Church, the Apostles left bishops as their successors, ‘handing over’ to them ‘the authority to teach in their own place.’ This sacred tradition, therefore, and Sacred Scripture of both the Old and New Testaments are like a mirror in which the pilgrim Church on earth looks at God, from whom she has received everything, until she is brought finally to see Him as He is, face to face (7).

The magisterium is meant as a help to the body of believers. It is to announce the Gospel. It is summoned to discern and interpret the Gospel — fully contained in Tradition and Scripture — and apply it to the changing times of human history. 

The magisterium is not a third source of Revelation. It is the teaching office of the Church, instituted by the Lord Jesus and guided by the Holy Spirit to revere, guard, discern and instruct the People of God on the saving truths contained in divine Revelation. It should never counter or contradict divine Revelation.

The magisterium is not the master of divine Revelation. Divine Revelation is neither the playground nor the toy of the Church’s shepherds. Divine Revelation is not some type of Play-Doh, in which the leaders of one age mold and shape it into whatever they want or desire. Divine Revelation is not to be seen or put into a position where it is somehow weighed or judged by the passing ideologies and fads of a particular generation. 

Divine Revelation is a gift. It is the sole arbiter of truth. It stands above all knowledge and is judged by nothing nor by anyone. It does not need to be legitimized nor made credible by anything. Divine Revelation is the Dei verbum, the words and deeds of God, who can never deceive nor be deceived. As faithful Christians pray in the Act of Faith:

O my God, I firmly believe that you are one God in three divine Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I believe that your divine Son became man and died for our sins and that he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe these and all the truths which the Holy Catholic Church teaches because you have revealed them who are eternal truth and wisdom, who can neither deceive nor be deceived. In this faith I intend to live and die. Amen.

Divine Revelation — the words and deeds of God — is the enduring expression of God’s goodness to the human family and of his love for each of us. Divine Revelation gives us the sure path to eternal life. 

The Second Vatican Council’s Dei Verbum teaches us:

In His goodness and wisdom God chose to reveal Himself and to make known to us the hidden purpose of His will by which through Christ, the Word made flesh, man might in the Holy Spirit have access to the Father and come to share in the divine nature (2).

Above all ideologies, worldviews and social movements, the magisterium is to be the highest, greatest and principal force in the world to assert the sacred character of divine Revelation and to guard its singularity in the midst of human knowledge and interaction. With the truths of divine Revelation, the magisterium is called to faithfully announce the Gospel, show the world its most excellent way of love, and constantly point the human family to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

The magisterium is the servant of divine Revelation. It is summoned to kneel in reverence before the deposit of faith. Again, Vatican II’s Dei Verbum speaks humbling and cautionary words to the shepherds of the Church:

But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed (10).

When the shepherds of the Church, therefore, overstep their authority and acquiesce to the fallenness of our world, the Holy Spirit — the guardian of truth and soul of the Church — will intervene. He will respect our human freedom, but he will not allow the universal Church to suffer indefinitely.

The Holy Spirit will purify, purge, absorb, dissolve, cushion and acclimate sloppy, poor and wayward leanings of the Church’s shepherds into the vast, expansive, beautiful, life-giving and eternal truths of Sacred Tradition. Novelty will fade. Messes will be cleaned up. And Sacred Tradition — with the Spirit’s divine justice — will step on and tread upon anything that hurts or weakens the power, integrity and force of the Gospel. 

In this light, the words of St. Paul stand as a roadmap and mile marker to the entire people of God and to their shepherds of every age:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:1-2).